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Dr. Norman Bethune

Photograph of Norman Bethune, 1928

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Norman Bethune, 1928

Illustration of Dr. Norman Bethune

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Norman Bethune (1890-1939), by Francine Auger

Dr. Norman Bethune is best known as a hero in the People's Republic of China and for his impact on Sino-Canadian relations. But he also gained a reputation in his native Canada as a gifted surgeon, an inventor, a political activist and an early proponent of a universal health care system.

Norman Bethune was born in 1890 in Gravenhurst, Ontario, north of Toronto. He was the son of a clergyman but chose to follow in his grandfather's footsteps and become a surgeon. He studied at the University of Toronto's Faculty of Medicine but, in 1911, he interrupted his studies to work for a year as a labourer-teacher with Frontier College.

Wartime service

At the outbreak of the First World War, Bethune joined the N0.2 Field Ambulance Medical Corps and sailed for France in February 1915. He was working as a stretcher-bearer in Ypres, Belgium, when a shrapnel shell exploded close to him and pieces of it pierced his leg. He was sent by ship to England where he spent three months recovering in hospital.

When Bethune returned to Canada, he resumed his medical studies and completed his Bachelor of Medicine in December 1916. One of his classmates was Frederick Banting, who would later achieve fame as the co-discoverer of insulin.

Painting showing Dr. Norman Bethune performing a blood transfusion

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Painting showing Dr. Norman Bethune performing a blood transfusion

With the war still raging, Dr. Bethune felt compelled to return to service, so he joined the Royal Navy as a lieutenant-surgeon. At war's end, he took on a six-month internship at the prestigious Hospital for Sick Children in London, England.

Back in Canada, Dr. Bethune worked in private practice in Stratford and Ingersoll, Ontario. But he was a restless man, so he traveled back to Britain to train as a surgeon at the University of Edinburgh. On February 3, 1922, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons.

Personal crises

While he was in Scotland, Norman Bethune married a Scottish girl, Frances Campbell Penney, and they moved to Detroit, Michigan, where he set up another private practice. But he was facing a period of crises in his personal life. In 1926, he contracted pulmonary tuberculosis. About the same time, his marriage failed, largely due to his lavish spending and flamboyant lifestyle.

Turning point

Dr. Bethune's stay in a New York sanitarium was a turning point. Here, he saw first-hand how little could be done for many victims of tuberculosis. In September 1928 he returned to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montréal and worked for eight years, devoting himself to helping other tuberculosis victims and to studying thoracic surgery.

Photograph of scapula lifter and retractor instrument invented by Dr. Norman Bethune, circa 1966

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Scapula lifter and retractor instrument invented by Dr. Norman Bethune, circa 1966

It was a productive time for Dr. Bethune. He invented or re-designed 12 medical and surgical instruments, some of which are still used today. He also wrote a large body of work describing his innovations in thoracic technique. These books provided essential reference material for surgeons.

But slowly, Dr. Bethune became disillusioned with surgical treatment and more concerned with the socio-economic aspects of disease. He was constantly challenging his profession and proposing reforms of medical care, including socialized medicine. As an example to others, he opened a free clinic where he treated women, children and unemployed men.

First brush with communism

In 1935, Dr. Bethune attended a conference in the Soviet Union and returned to Montréal with high praise for their medical system. Still convinced of the benefits of socialized medicine, he helped organize the Montreal Group for the Security of the People's Health, an organization dedicated to establishing socialized medicine in Canada. The Group's recommendations were met with complete indifference. Dr. Bethune became bitter and disillusioned.

Photograph  of Dr. Norman Bethune beside blood-transfusion truck during Spanish Civil War

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Dr. Norman Bethune beside blood-transfusion truck during Spanish Civil War

Off to Spain

Dr. Bethune formally joined the Communist Party in the winter of 1935. He felt that his own goals were perfectly reflected in those of the Party: to change the world for the better. When he saw that he could not accomplish his objectives in Canada, he decided to travel to Spain, which, in 1936, was on the verge of civil war.

A chance to make a difference

Norman Bethune was a man of action and here was his chance to act. No sooner had he arrived in Spain than he traveled to the front lines and jumped into action. His experience as a stretcher-bearer during the First World War taught him the importance of helping the wounded quickly. So he set up a blood bank close to the front lines and organized a mobile blood-transfusion service, the first of its kind. By the next spring, Dr. Bethune and his small medical team were giving up to 100 blood transfusions a day.

Dr. Bethune returned to Canada in 1937 to a hero's welcome. Still firmly committed to the war in Spain, he criss-crossed the country, trying to raise money for the anti-fascist cause. But there was little interest in that distant war, and Bethune became bitterly disappointed.

Photograph of Dr. Norman Bethune, assisted by Henning Sorensen, performing a blood-transfusion during the Spanish Civil War

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Dr. Norman Bethune, assisted by Henning Sorensen, performing a transfusion during the Spanish Civil War

A new cause to embrace

Once again, Dr. Bethune was growing restless, just as another war was escalating in the East. In 1937, the Japanese invaded China and Chinese Chairman Mao Zedong and his communist soldiers were trying to resist the Japanese invaders. Bethune saw this as another battle against fascism and he was determined to help.

He gathered together a medical team and on January 8, 1938, the Canadian-American Mobile Medical Unit left Canada to join the 8th Route Army in the Shanxi-Hobei border region of China. Once in China, Dr. Bethune immediately adopted the cause and the people as his own. He worked long hard days under the most rudimentary conditions and quickly became known as a skilled surgeon and a dedicated teacher.

In October 1939, the Japanese launched another attack. Dr. Bethune and his team rushed to the front where the worst fighting was unfolding and worked long hours caring for the wounded. While he was operating on a soldier, Bethune cut his finger. Probably due to his weakened state, he contracted septicaemia (blood poisoning) and died of his wounds on November 12, 1939.

A nation mourns

Dr. Bethune's death shocked the Chinese nation. Chinese Chairman Mao Zedong wrote a tribute titled "In Memory of Norman Bethune," in which he praised the doctor for his selflessness and dedication to the Chinese people.

In 1952, Norman Bethune's body was moved to a memorial park built to commemorate those who died in the war. Across the road from Bethune's tomb and statue lies the most fitting tribute of all: the Norman Bethune International Peace Hospital.

Canada too marked Norman Bethune's passing by naming his birthplace in Gravenhurst, Ontario, a national historic site and unveiling a bronze statue of him in downtown Gravenhurst.